© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
“Gene Krupa -Premier Virtuose et première “Star” de la Batterie.”
- Georges Paczynski
"Gene Krupa was so full of life. And he sure loved to swing."
— Roy Eldridge
"Gene was the epitome of what you expect in a drummer. The guy was beautiful-looking. . . . And when he played solos in his own particular, easily identifiable style, people would come out of the woodwork. He had something. I guess you call it charisma….
As far as I'm concerned, Gene had more talent than anyone including Buddy Rich. He was fantastic but frustrated. He had so much to say but couldn't get it out. I don't think he used his muscles properly. I didn't like the way he moved. Too much unnecessary motion.
Let me explain something. You have guys like Buddy, Louie
Bellson. These guys are like good wine. The older they become, the better they play. If a drummer moves correctly, he keeps improving. If your machine works right, you keep playing well. Simple as that.
Make no mistake, Gene was no slouch. But his talent required more than he had. Sure, his solos were phenomenal; his taste and the things he did were great. But he was capable of more. He just didn't have the chops to do them.”
— Henry Adler
“The nights and years of playing in cellars and saloons and ballrooms, of practicing separately and together, of listening to Louis and Joe Oliver and Jimmy Noone and Leon Rappolo, of losing sleep and breathing bad air and drinking licorice gin, paid off. We were together and apart at the same time, tying up a package with six different strings. Krupa's drums went through us like a triple bourbon.”
- Eddie Condon
Everything that Gene played he meant. He was committed to what he played. The acting, the motion, were a part of him. Even when he played the simplest thing, it was dramatic and had a particular sound. The man was a theatrical player. Emotion and theatricality were linked in his case. Without showmanship, it didn't have the same intensity. Even with your eyes closed you could tell if he was performing with feeling or if the whole thing was done deadpan.
- Jim Chapin
"He had a sense of the dramatic that was absolutely unprecedented
in jazz. … He was a showman"
— John Hammond
"Krupa the drummer is difficult to isolate from Krupa the showman."
— Whitney Balliett
“But it went beyond showmanship and even chemistry. Simply, Krupa was the right man for the job. He had developed a style that was consonant with the Goodman style. Both were focused on pulsation, swing. Having smoothed out the pulse to a fluid four, tapped out vigorously on the bass drum, he used that as a basis and addressed the arrangements—by Deane Kincaide, Jimmy Mundy, Fletcher Henderson, etc.—in a manner that strikingly merged drum rudiments and jazz syncopation, and academic and more informal techniques. He made a strong case for swinging and intensive, continuing study.
Krupa struck a balance between instinct, the roots of jazz, and a scientific approach to drumming. The language came directly from Chick Webb. But Krupa formalized, simplified, and clarified it. Krupa thrust the drum set into the foreground, making it not only a source of rhythm but of musicality and color as well. Before Krupa, only the great black drummers had so powerfully mingled these key elements.
And yes, Krupa knew how to sell. He looked terrific as he moved around the set, twirling sticks and acting out his solos with bodily and facial expressions. He built his playing on a musical foundation, but made sure that he and the music made an impression. He became an undeniable glamour figure in a sweat-drenched formal suit, the handsome "deb's delight"—as Life once tabbed him—who often transcended his leader in popularity. To a nation coming out of a Depression, Gene Krupa was new and exciting. To the musical community, he was a flamboyant figure, perhaps not as subtle as he might have been, but a musician, indeed….”
“Krupa’s Influence even extended to equipment. He established a basic drum and cymbal set-up that many drummers adopted:
snare drum, bass drum, tom-tom mounted on the left side of the bass drum, and a larger tom-tom on the floor, at the drummer's right; ten-to twelve-inch high hats, thirteen-inch crash cymbal on the left on a stand, an eight-inch splash and fourteen-inch time/crash cymbal (both mounted on the bass drum), and a sixteen-inch crash on a stand, at the drummer's right. Krupa had a lot to do with the development and popularization of tom-toms tuneable on both sides. He also was responsible for the introduction of pearl finishes on drums (most sets had been painted black or white duco).
Still another innovation was a heraldic shield on the front of the bass drum (on the left) with his initials inside; the band leader's initials were used on the right side of the bass drum in bold, large lettering. The trend to initials and lettering rapidly displaced funny painted scenes on the front of bass drums….”
- Burt Korall
“Gene ... so conscientious and so concerned. He got mad at me if the band didn't play well. Whatever we played, and I didn't care what it was he did, sounded pretty good to me, then (and still sounds good) now. I still listen to those records, and if you can find fault with them you're a better man than I am. Not me, I love them. Gene had excitement. If he gained a little speed, so what? Better than sitting on your ass just getting by.”
- Benny Goodman
Krupa's snare drum sound was central to the character of his work. Crisp, clean, with a suggestion of echo, it enhanced the excitement of his performances. While playing "time" or patterns across the set, Krupa also established engaging relationships between the bass drum and the other drums, and between the cymbals and the drums. He used rudiments in a natural, swinging, often original way.”
- Burt Korall
Krupa's was a very special sound and it didn't occur by chance. He would strike the drum head and rim in such a way that the stick carried the impact from the rim down to the tip of the stick and transmitted it to the head, which then acted like an amplifier. Then—and this is the key—he would get the stick away from the head immediately so that it didn't kill the vibrations. Leave the stick on the drum an instant too long, he used to say, and you lose that echo that lingers after that shot and gives it its musical quality.
- John McDonough
“Krupa viewed drums differently than his younger colleagues. Drummers of the bop generation were endeavoring to free the instrument, make it more contributory, the equal of the melody instruments in the small and big band. They focused on the beat and color values; they played more, filling openings during a performance with "bombs" or comments. Krupa didn't feel natural doing these things.
Nor did he favor moving the center of pulsation from the snare drum, bass drum, and high-hat to the ride cymbals, using the bass drum in a sparing manner. Krupa didn't quite know when and how to play accents or bombs on the bass drum. He had difficulty bringing a sense of the melodic to his playing, which was just one of the things modernists such as Kenny Clarke, Max Roach, Stan Levey, Art Blakey, and Shelly Manne, among others, were doing. For Krupa, drums were strictly a rhythm instrument, and making changes in the character of drums was not easy for him. In short, he and his performances revealed an ambivalence concerning the modern style.
A swing drummer essentially wedded to the snare drum, Krupa was most comfortable in a swing groove, playing as many a swing drummer would, using the snare and bass drums and the high-hat as his basic tools….
Krupa did try to move ahead. Records he cut over the next few years, extending into the 1950s, make a case for his awareness and use of contemporary ideas. They also strongly suggest that he could not get away from his roots as a musician and completely alter his drumming style to fit in with the younger players; too much of his musical development and musical life occurred before bop.”
“ I watched him change in 1945 and '46 when he was trying to play bebop. At first he didn't seem to really know what to do. But he soon caught on. His bass drumming became lighter—not a hell of a lot, but a little. He started playing time on ride cymbals and dropping bombs, usually on the beat. But on the right beats. On "4" and "3"; not on "1" so much. He'd listen. That was the important thing.
He reached a midpoint between swing and bebop and made what he did work. When you think about how good he sounded playing light press rolls over 4/4 rhythm behind a bebopper like Charlie Kennedy, you realize that, my God, he brought two worlds together at a point where it wasn't obnoxious. It didn't sound dumb; it still was okay. And the guys in the band loved him for it; they forgave him for some of the old-time tricks he was laying on them and accepted him.
Gene met the young guys more than half way. He had the band's book written modern. He went out to listen to young drummers. Gene was not one of those guys who said only what he did was right. Sure he believed in himself, but the man wasn't an egomaniac.
Musically, Gene was open. He always was trying to learn. As far as I'm concerned, that's wonderful. He didn't sit around talking about the old days all the time. He wanted to go out and play and see what was happening, now.”
- Mel Lewis
“He had a unique feel, a groove, a hell of a groove when he played.”
- Steve Gadd
“Things wouldn’t be the way they are if he hadn’t been around.”
– Buddy Rich
Buddy Rich’s comment says so much about Gene Krupa’s contributions to the development of Jazz, in particular, what Burt Korall refers to as “the heartbeat of Jazz.”
For many years, I thought that Gene Krupa was what Jazz drumming was all about. Period. He was the be-all, end-all; the best; my hero.
I’m sure I’m not alone in holding this impression and making this assessment.
For a lot of us who grew up banging the kitchen pots and pans to death, he was the quintessential Jazz drummer.
In writing a tribute feature about Gene Krupa it is difficult to know where to stop. The accolades and kudos come from everywhere and everyone. One gets the feeling that there isn’t a Jazz musician, let alone, a Jazz drummer, who doesn’t have some degree of appreciation for what Gene contributed to this music.
Some of these testimonials to Gene and his significance to Jazz form the introduction to this piece.
As drawn from a variety of sources including Burt’s Drummin’ Men: The Swing Years and Volume 1 of Georges Paczynski’s Une Histoire de la Batterie de Jazz: Des Origines dux Annes Swing, here is a basic overview of the highlights of Gene’s career as a way of remembering how it was for one of the earlier makers of the music while also recalling his many contributions to Jazz during the first half century or so of its existence.
Gene Krupa was born in Chicago, Illinois on January 15, 1909 and was the the youngest of Bartley and Ann Krupa's nine children. His father died when Gene was very young and his mother worked as a milliner to support the family. All of the children had to start working while young, Gene at age eleven. His brother Pete worked at "Brown Music Company", and got Gene a job as chore boy. Gene started out playing sax in grade school but took up drums at age 11 since they were the cheapest item in the music store where he and his brother worked. "I used to look in their wholesale catalog for a musical instrument - piano, trombone, cornet - I didn't care what it was as long as it was an instrument. The cheapest item was the drums, 16 beans, I think, for a set of Japanese drums; a great high, wide bass drum, with a brass cymbal on it, a wood block and a snare drum."
His parents were very religious and had groomed Gene for the priesthood. He spent his grammar school days at various parochial schools and upon graduation went to St. Joseph's College for a brief year. Gene's drive to drum was too strong and he gave up the idea of becoming a priest. In 1921, while still in grammar school, Gene joined his first band "The Frivolians." He obtained the drumming seat as a fluke when the regular drummer was sick. The band played during summers in Madison, Wisconsin. Upon entering high school in 1923, Gene became buddies with the "Austin High Gang", which included many musicians which would be on Gene's first recording session; Jimmy McPartland, Jimmy Lannigan, Bud Freeman and Frank Teschemacher.
In 1925, Gene began his percussion studies with Roy Knapp, Al Silverman & Ed Straight. Under advice from others, he decided to join the musicians union. "The guy said, 'Make a roll. That's it. Give us 50 bucks. You're In.'" Krupa started his first "legit" playing with Joe Kayser, Thelma Terry and the Benson Orchestra among other commercial bands. A popular hangout for musicians was "The Three Deuces." All of the guys playing in mickey mouse bands would gravitate here after hours and jam till early in the morning. Gene was able to hone and develop his style playing with other jazz players such as Mezz Mezzrow, Tommy Dorsey, Bix Beiderbecke and Benny Goodman in these local dives. Krupa's big influences during this time were Tubby Hall and Zutty Singleton. The drummer who probably had the greatest influence on Gene in this period was the great Baby Dodds. Dodds' use of press rolls was highly reflected in Gene's playing, especially during his tenure with Gene has often been considered to be the first drum "soloist." Drummers usually had been strictly time-keepers or noisemakers, but
Krupa interacted with the other musicians and introduced the extended drum solo into jazz. His goal was to support the other musicians while creating his own role within the group. Gene is also considered the father of the modern drumset since he convinced H.H. Slingerland, of Slingerland Drums, to make tuneable tom-toms. Tom-toms up to that point had "tacked" heads, which left little ability to change the sound. The new drum design was introduced in 1936 and was termed "Seperate Tension Tunable Tom-Toms." Gene was a loyal endorser of Slingerland Drums from 1936 until his death. Krupa was called on by Avedis Zildjian to help with developing the modern hi-hat cymbals. The original hi-hat was called a "low-boy" which was a floor level cymbal setup which was played with the foot. This arrangement made it nearly impossible for stick playing.
Gene's first recording session was a historical one. It occurred in December of 1927 when he is noted to be the first drummer to record with a bass drum. Krupa, along with rest of the McKenzie-Condon Chicagoans were scheduled to record at OKeh Records in Chicago. OKeh's Tommy Rockwell was apprehensive to record Gene's drums but gave in. Rockwell said "All right, but I'm afraid the bass drum and those tom-toms will knock the needle off the wax and into the street."
Gene moved to New York in 1929 and was recruited by Red Nichols. He, along with Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller, performed in the pit band of the new George Gershwin play "Strike Up the Band." Gene had never learned to read music and "faked" his parts during rehearsals. Glenn Miller assisted him by humming the drum parts until Gene got them down. After "Strike Up the Band" completed in January 1930, Hoagy Carmichael gathered several great musicians together for many historical sessions. Gene played on some legendary "jazz" recordings with Bix Beiderbecke, Adrian Rollini and Joe Venuti. Krupa played in one more pit band with Red Nichols for Gershwin's "Girl Crazy." He then joined Russ Columbo's band in which indirectly led to his joining Benny Goodman's group.
Benny Goodman urged Gene to join his band with the promise that it would be a real jazz band. After joining, Benny soon became discouraged with the idea of having a successful jazz group. The band was relegated to playing dance music and Benny was considering packing it in. Upon the band's engagement at the Palomar, Benny decided to go for broke and play their own arrangements. The audience went wild and the band took off. The Goodman group featured Gene prominently in the full orchestra and with the groundbreaking Goodman Trio and Quartet. The Trio is possibly the first working small group which featured black and white musicians.
On January 16, 1938, the band was the first "jazz" act to play New York's Carnegie Hall. Gene's classic performance on "Sing Sing Sing" has been heralded as the first extended drum solo in jazz. After the Carnegie Hall performance, tension began to surface between Gene and Benny. Audiences were demanding that Gene be featured in every number and Benny didn't want to lose the spotlight to a sideman.
Gene departed on March 3, 1938 and less than 2 months later formed his own orchestra. His band was an instant success upon its opening at the Marine Ballroom on the Steel Pier in Atlantic City during April of 1938. His band went through several incarnations during it's existence and at one point even featured a string section with 30 to 40 members. During this time Krupa authored his own book titled "The Gene Krupa Drum Method"(1938) and began an annual Drum Contest (1941). The contest attracted thousands of contestants each year and saw drum legend Louie Bellson as the first year's winner. Gene appeared in several motion pictures including "Some Like it Hot" & "Beat the Band", becoming a sort of matinee idol. His noted likeness to Tyrone Power and musical fame was a magical combination in the eyes of Hollywood.
In the summer of 1943, Krupa was arrested in San Francisco in a bogus drug bust. He was charged with possession of marijuana and contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Gene was sentenced to 90 days, of which 84 were served. He was later cleared of the latter charges. During this time, Roy Eldridge led Gene's band and eventually had to break up the group. After Gene got out of jail, he briefly joined up with Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey before re-forming his own band. Krupa's groups of the early 1940's were often criticized as being too commercial but Gene's big band was one of the first in the mid-forties to introduce Bop arrangements with the help of Gerry Mulligan and the playing of trumpeter Red Rodney. Gene managed to keep the full band together until December of 1950, when most big bands had already fallen apart. He kept a smaller version of the big band together through 1951.
After breaking up his big band, Gene wasn't sure which direction to take. He had led small groups within his big band during the 40's, this was a logical choice with the growing popularity of be-bop. The Gene Krupa Trio was one of the first acts recruited by Norman Granz for his "Jazz At The Philharmonic" concerts(due to contractual reasons, Gene was first billed as "The Chicago Flash."). The JATP dates introduced the famous "Drum Battles" with Buddy Rich in October of 1952 and the subsequent studio recordings on the Lp "Krupa and Rich" in 1955. Some of the greatest jazz recordings of all time were the result of the "All-Star" jams at JATP.
The alumni of these dates included Lester Young, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Shavers, Ray Brown, Lionel Hampton, Buddy Rich and of course, Gene. Along with Cozy Cole, Gene formed the Krupa-Cole Drum School in March of 1954. He also began studying tympani with the New York Philharmonic's Saul Goodman(1951). In 1959, actor Sal Mineo portrayed Gene in the motion picture "The Gene Krupa Story." The film was very loose in the facts of Gene's career but did feature an excellent soundtrack recorded by Krupa himself. Gene's huge resurgence in popularity eventually led to his departing the teaching role he had at the Drum School.
By the late fifties Krupa was prompted to slow down due to increasing back problems. He had a heart attack in 1960 which forced him into a retirement for many months. After recuperating, the ever-changing Quartet continued to perform, record and regularly appeared at New York's Metropole. The Goodman Quartet reunited and played several live dates. Gene led a hectic schedule with the Quartet through the early and mid-sixties, performing throughout the US and abroad. His health once again became a problem and his second marriage fell apart. He retired in 1967 proclaiming that "I feel too lousy to play and I know I must sound lousy."
During his hiatus, Krupa practiced and coached his baseball team. In 1969, Gene began a series of anti-drug lectures and clinics for Slingerland Drums. He officially came out of retirement in the spring of 1970, re-formed the Quartet and was featured at Hotel Plaza in New York. Gene's last commercial recording was in November of 1972, titled "Jazz At the New School" with Eddie Condon and Wild Bill Davison. Gene's final public performance was with a reunion of the old Goodman Quartet on August 18, 1973.
His soloing ability was greatly diminished but his overall playing had become more modern sounding than ever. Gene died October 16, 1973 of a heart attack. He had also been plagued by leukemia and emphysema. He was laid to rest at the Holy Cross Cemetery in Calumet City, Illinois.
Gene Krupa will forever be known as the man who made drums a solo instrument. He single-handedly made the Slingerland Drum Company a success and inspired millions to become drummers. He also demonstrated a level of showmanship which has not been equaled. Buddy Rich once said that Gene was the "beginning and the end of all jazz drummers." Louie Bellson said of Gene, "He was a wonderful, kind man and a great player. He brought drums to the foreground. He is still a household name."
The following video features Gene on the studio version of Sing, Sing, Sing about which Milt Gabler, the long-time proprietor of Commodore Records was to observe:
“Sing, Sing, Sing changed things. After Gene’s great success with that recording, drums became an important part of every Jazz presentation. The drummer got more attention and worked harder, particularly at concerts and sessions.”